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The Mother of all Chumrot

For God’s Sake!?, Chapter 2
Mother of Chumras

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Chaim Burg

Chaim Burg

It took less than a day for the world’s first chumrah to appear on this earth. Just go back to the beginning of Genesis. God commands Adam: ‘You can eat from all the trees of the Garden of Eden but from the tree of knowledge you shall not eat.’ (Genesis 2:16)

A little later when Eve has her tete-a-tete with the snake she says that God commanded (Genesis 3:3): ‘We can eat from all of the trees in the Garden but from the tree that God specified we can not eat or touch”. The non-touching is Eve’s chumrah.

The sneaky snake realizing that that wasn’t quite God’s command, nudges her and she accidentally touches the tree. Since there was no command against touching the tree – nothing happened. The snake then said, ‘You see? The whole thing is a bluff. You touched the tree and are still alive. The same will be true if you eat the fruit.’ (Bereshit Raba)

We all know how the story continues. Eve takes the fruit, entices Adam to eat it. And since then we have to work by the sweat of our brow and endure hours of labor at childbirth (Genesis 3:16-19).

All because of a chumrah … that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Logic would have it that the further you are from the source the more lax and lenient enforcement of the law would be. The minutia of a decree passed in Washington seems to lose steam by the time it reaches Lower Creek, North Dakota.

Based on that way of thinking, 3500 years after receiving the, halachic rulings should be very lenient.

Yet, within the Orthodox community just the opposite is true. Today’s piskai halachah (Jewish legal decisions/rulings) are in most cases stricter than ever.

Particularly since the end of World War II there has been a trend towards the right. There may be multiple reasons for this. After WWII numerous Jews gave up on God and turned off religion as an integral, important element of their life. After all, where was God when all this was going on?

The destruction of thousands of closely knit Jewish communities. Family units were decimated. Role models disappeared. Displaced persons, those who survived, started life in areas with virtually no ties to the past. Therefore, many left religion because there were no family members or friends trying to dissuade them. Those who kept their religious observance did so without the wide support that they had prior to the war and so they circled the wagons and became even more religious.

Immigration to countries such as the US and Israel afforded shattered communities the opportunity to regroup. But these new small, reborn communities were miniscule islands in secular seas. To offset this perceived negative atmosphere, observant Jews moved more to the right as a protective measure. Insulate and isolate.

They turned to religion and God as being the force that saved them while so many others were murdered. Those who took the religious tack felt that the gratitude they owed God called for taking on more stringent stands and so became even more religious. Their leadership saw this as a means of rebuilding after the terrible decimation.

In America and in Europe competition for employment both after the mass immigration of 1890-1910 and after WWII was fierce. Other immigrants and returning soldiers competed for jobs and survival. With the six day work week, Monday through Saturday, working on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) became a requirement for finding a job. Sabbath observers had to take a stand.

Many observant Jews fell by the wayside and gave in to economic pressure and worked on the Sabbath. Others stood fast and refused to submit to outside pressures and refused to work on Shabbat. These people needed a support mechanism for assistance. For example, places of work that included schedules that permitted Sabbath observance. This led many Sabbath observers to establish their own businesses. This in turn facilitated observance of the Sabbath as well as all Torah commandments connected to dealings in business. Not only to observe them – but take on all the stringencies – because they were calling the shots.

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About the Author: Chaim Burg was born in New York and was strongly influence by the teachings of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Z.D. Kanotopsky. A graduate of Cooper Union, Burg spent most of his active business career as a communications consultant for major U.S. and international corporations. A well regarded author and lecturer, he mainly deals with thought provoking views on the evolution of Halacha. Burg made aliya in 1975.


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